Photo by Nick Coleman.
The question of whether nature or nurture wields the most influence over personal development is at least as old as the debates between Plato, who believed innate traits were dominant, and his pupil Aristotle in the 4th century BCE.
In Ed Korsinsky’s case, the difference is immaterial since they led to the same outcome.
An enterprising lawyer with a passion for digital technology, Korsinsky founded a plaintiff securities firm in 2003 with partner Joe Levi that has pioneered a technology platform enabling clients to identify portfolio holdings involved in litigation, track case development and recover damages.
“I was always very interested in the American dream,” says Korsinsky, who traces his successes to his childhood and his parents.
The son of Russian immigrants, the managing partner of Levi & Korsinsky grew up watching his father – who had been a professor of electrical and mechanical engineering before moving to New York – represent himself in landlord-tenant court.
The elder Korsinsky was thrilled to be in a country where he could speak his mind and assert his rights in court, often wishing he had been a lawyer. His true passion, though, was technology.
“We had one of the first IBM PCs, as soon as it came out,” Korsinsky recalls. “He got a government grant to get that in our house. It cost $5,000 for a computer without a hard drive, just two floppy-disk drives.”
Over the years, he helped his father seek several patents for software and hardware involving facial recognition, he says, and “we learned a lot together. We worked on those projects together, and I was tinkering with cameras attached to a PC that was digitizing pictures and images before, I think, any civilian was.”
He still remembers his father’s frustration the day he disassembled a computer simply because he loved tinkering with the parts.
“That was the environment I grew up in: I actually had some consulting gigs when I was a teenager, fixing and writing software for some clients in the neighborhood,” Korsinsky says. “I became the computer geek.”
By the time Korsinsky had to decide on a career, it was clear that technology and the law were the two most likely options.
“I just felt like I could do more, I could change the world, impact the world in a different way, if I were a lawyer,” he says. Another factor was “being raised in a home where the legal profession was looked up to.”
Technology continued to play a role, though, from the firm early in his career where he implemented a customer relationship management, or CRM, system that fostered better communication with clients to Korsinsky’s co-founding of CORE, the platform that Levi & Korsinsky leverages today.
“I was very interested in the law, in the intellectual portion of it, but for some reason I always came back to, ‘How can I make this more efficient? How can I add something that’s unique and valuable?”
As a young lawyer, Korsinsky quickly realized that junior lawyers don’t always have the skills to write a stellar brief or try a case, but he knew he had a skillset that some of his peers lacked.
“I said, ‘Look, I can apply technology in a way that would add value on the legal end,’” he explains. “
Years later, it’s that focus on unique value-adds that differentiates Levi & Korsinsky from its rivals.
In addition to notching landmark victories including a $79 million recovery in E-Trade Financial Corp. securities litigation and indemnifying Google Inc. investors for up to $522 million in losses in a corporate governance matter, the firm prides itself on client communications in complex cases that can take years to resolve.
“We have over 160,000 retail clients in our system,” Korsinsky says. “Rather than making them call us regularly, we realized the next level was having a system where information is pushed to them that they can read at their leisure. I think clients appreciate that: They don’t always want to be talking to lawyers. People are shy or busy, and we’re busy, so we put that into the equation. Technology is one way to oil that machine, smooth out the process and make that interaction a lot richer.”
Hands-on participation is key, too. To build CORE, the firm relied on over 20 developers rather than outsourcing.
“We’re not very big believers in outsourcing,” Korsinsky says. “I think you have to be there. You have to be involved. What sets us apart is that all the way, from the top down, it’s software that’s written with real lawyer buy-in and interaction as opposed to some consultant coming in, you telling them what you want and them coming back with a big binder that you sign off on. It’s a different level: You really have to roll up your sleeves.”
In keeping with that philosophy, the firm maintains a room at its lower Manhattan offices where personnel tinker with software systems and hardware, ensuring that its technological services remain cutting-edge.
Because the firm’s attorneys helped develop CORE, it’s easier to input developments from court, which are then fed seamlessly to clients who “get to see real-time what we’re doing for them,” Korsinsky says.
Better-informed clients pay dividends by making the firmer smarter, he adds. “I’ve had clients tell me, ‘Now that I really understand what you’re trying to do, what about this? What about that?’ They’re engaged, and more engaged clients make us look at the case, perhaps, from a different perspective. Some clients may be industry insiders who bring special experience, information or knowledge and that makes us better lawyers, helps us be more effective at what we do.”
Simply being tech-savvy can make a difference in case outcomes. In one matter, Levi & Korsinsky negotiated a $35 million settlement after using metadata – which can include dates and times of file creation and alteration as well as identifying people who made modifications – to show that a company and its lawyers had been less than forthright about what documents should have been available to the firm and its clients.
While securities law may not have the visceral appeal of personal-injury or environmental litigation, violations of investment laws and corporate malpractice can take a huge toll on families who rely on their portfolios to fund major life milestones, from buying a house to paying for a child’s college education and retirement.
“These are game-changing events for people,” Korsinsky says. “Families have been broken. Dreams have been shattered. I’ve spoken to many people who had to change their entire trajectory because of a stock.”
For him, and for the firm’s partners, the opportunity to help such investors is what makes plaintiffs’ law attractive.
“On the defense side, every case is a number in a much larger loss run that is one sheet in a much larger Excel spreadsheet, and it’s your job to make that number as small as possible,” says Adam Apton, a New York-based partner who joined Levi & Korsinsky after stints at a defense firm specializing in mass tort and Heller Ehrman, a century-old San Francisco-based firm that didn’t survive the 2008 financial crisis.
“Whereas, on the plaintiff side, we have personal clients – a 70-odd-year-old gentleman from Wisconsin who has lost his 401(k) because he invested in, take your pick of, any number of companies that was up to no good and his retirement savings are on the line,” Apton adds. “Winning in a case like this feels great.”
Class-action cases can be lifesavers for small investors who don’t have the ability to litigate their own claims, he says, allowing them to band together and muster the financial clout to make pursuing a lengthy, complex court action worthwhile.
TAKING ON TESLA
Among the headline-making class-actions on Levi & Korsinsky’s docket now is fraud litigation against Tesla Inc. over CEO Elon Musk’s August 2018 Twitter posts announcing he had secured funding to take the electric-car maker private for $420 a share, a substantial premium to its price at the time.
The Securities and Exchange Commission, which deemed the statements largely untrue, subsequently settled its own claims against Musk and Tesla for cash fines of $20 million each and corporate governance changes that included Musk relinquishing the title of chairman for three years.
Levi & Korsinsky is lead counsel in the shareholder matter, filed in September 2018 in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.
“It’s quite a momentous case,” says Nick Porritt, a D.C-based partner who began his legal career in New Zealand and joined Levi & Korsinsky in 2012. “We’ve more or less finished fact discovery, we’re winding up expert discovery and going full-steam ahead toward trial.”
The matter raises interesting questions about the future of legal requirements for corporate disclosures, which the SEC mandated be available to all shareholders simultaneously, rather than a select few, with Regulation FD (Fair Disclosure) in October 2000.
Often, companies have complied via public presentations and required filings with the SEC, which had to be made within two days and were carefully scrutinized by lawyers beforehand.
The agency has, however, allowed disclosure via social media platforms including Twitter and “with the fracture of corporate and advertising communication through America and the world, that’s going to hit the way you reach investors and analysts,” Porritt says.
SPINNING V. MISLEADING
“Some companies, no question, are going to take advantage of that and are not going to be completely honest,” he adds. “Our cases often focus on where does spin stop and fraud begin? Companies are allowed to spin, but not to mislead. Where the line starts and stops is often complex and not always obvious and social media just allows further ways of spin.”
Separately, the firm is involved in opioid litigation, representing shareholders in suits against the boards of medication-makers including AmerisourceBergen and against Walmart, whose pharmacies filled prescriptions for the narcotic painkillers, said Greg Nespole, who grew up on New York’s Upper East Side and moved into securities litigation after defending suspects in organized crime and racketeering cases.
Cases involving the painkillers have surged in the past several years as state governments joined with Washington to fight a surge in opioid deaths that totaled nearly 500,000 from 1999 to 2019 alone, according to figures from the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The first wave started with a jump in prescriptions for opioids, the agency said, and governments have subsequently accused medication producers in lawsuits of misleading stakeholders from patients to healthcare providers about the risks involved.
Pharmacies face their own challenges. The Levi & Korsinsky litigation includes claims that some filled opiate prescriptions even though they were riddled with red flags, Nespole said.
“There are many critics of plaintiff’s litigation, but get rid of us and see what happens to the economy, see what happens to consumers, see what happens to investors,” he said. “You’ll go back to a world of pure caveat emptor.”
Beyond the macroeconomic benefits, Levi & Korsinsky emphasizes the firm’s impact on individuals.
“It’s the human aspect that I always focus on, and I try to impart that to everybody here,” Korsinsky says. “We’re not just going to court to win on esoteric, or maybe not esoteric, legal issues. There are people behind this.”
BUILDING A BETTER WORKPLACE
That includes the firm’s employees as well as its clients. Part of the vision he and Levi had was building a firm that would be more fun to work for.
Not in the gimmicky, video-games-and-beanbags manner of tech companies but through policies that would accommodate staffers’ preferences on attire and scheduling, for example.
The firm allowed remote work before COVID-19 made the practice ubiquitous as well as flexible scheduling.
“We work hard so I don’t want any of the extraneous requirements that come with a stuffy office, the kind of culture that comes from the top down,” he says.
In a professional setting, “I think what fun means is that the people around you care about what your issues are, and take the time to help you address them,” Korsinsky explains.
On occasion, he concedes, “we’ve been burned by doing this, but that’s fine. As long as we stay true to our values, ultimately, I feel good about myself and they feel good about themselves.”
Levi & Korsinsky also prides itself on fostering the next generation of lawyers.
Korsinsky himself remembers how often he was shut down as a young attorney and sees value in hiring people in a similar position who have the drive to succeed.
In finance industry jargon, it amounts to arbitrage.
“Yes, they still need experience and they’re missing some things, but there’s so much more that they can offer than firms give them credit for,” he says. “You have really smart people who go through law school, do very well in law school and persevere. They graduate, sometimes with honors, and they go out and get their first job and they’re told, “OK, go sit in the back room and do document review.’”
Korsinsky views that as a huge letdown. “Why not give them the credit they’re due,” he asked. “They persevered: Why not give them more responsibility instead of less responsibility?”
The reason, predictably, is that allocating responsibility based on age is what high-dollar clients expect.
“So one of the factors that I think was important for us was to get into a practice where we had license to do something different,” he says. “In plaintiffs’ class-action work, you don’t have a big client tell you what to do and who they want to see and a general counsel who’s directing traffic in a very intimate way, so you have a lot more freedom. We’ve taken advantage of that.”
The results of that decision have shown that both nature and nurture depend on a third, and often more random, variable: opportunity.
“The ones who are given opportunities and get out there and really shine are then given more opportunities,” Korsinsky says. “They add such tremendous value and grow into amazing lawyers.”